Oh my castles in the wind
Which such bane to me you caused
How have I had you dissolved!
Towering castles I assembled,
Fortune was all the while still
And I said: Lost wishes, disremembered,
you shall fall and greatly you will!
But, oh! Poor understanding!
Where were you then sojourned
That to my aid you did not return?
So hastily you left me,
Left was all the hope;
This was not the change of time,
But it was the death of mine.
Castles of no substance,
how much have you promised me,
how much to me have you crumbled!
Sá de Miranda, Poesia e Teatro. Lisboa: Biblioteca Ulisseia de Autores Portugueses, s/d. Translation for this website Rita Faria.
This poem should not have been forgotten (and it probably wasn’t) because it cruelly describes the confrontation between what we are and what we would like to be. What we would like to be is the “castles in the wind”; what we are is the “poor understanding”, and the castles dissolved. This is therefore a cruel poem.
The poem is a vilancico, headed by a three-line motto and it is again an example of the poetic modernisation which the Poets of Cancioneiro Geral introduced in Portugal. The syntax is wonderfully intricate: a lace that is punctuated by personal pronouns (“how have I had you dissolved”; “to my aid you did not return”; “how much have you promised me, how much to me have you crumbled”) which makes the task of translating the poem into English exquisitely difficult, and with necessarily poor results.
I have said the poem was cruel, and it is so for two reasons. Firstly, it describes a cruel situation in life which others have also pointed out. James Baldwin, who I’m fairly certain was not acquainted with the works of Sá de Miranda, said “we are cruelly trapped between what we would like to be and what we actually are” (my emphasis). The adverb “cruelly” is wisely employed, as it is not certain we will ever be able to leave the stage of perpetual dialectics between castles in the wind and the unforgiving light of reality. Sá de Miranda not only indicates this stage lasts forever but he also describes the aforementioned cruelty exquisitely and in detail – he resorts to a painful vocative to summon his castles as if they still existed (“oh my castles in the wind”); and he says that fortune has not stopped him from assembling “towering castles” to the extent that he, the poet, thought he would be finally free from his “lost wishes”, sins and woes – but no. He was not free. The impact of the disillusion is overwhelming, for it is embedded in the painful image of castles which dissolve in the wind, and in the semantics of destruction (“death of mine”, “crumbled”).
The poet’s memory of addressing “lost wishes” directly (“you shall fall, and greatly you will”) merely contributes to enhance the weight of disillusion. His “poor understanding”, which has eventually forsaken him, allowed him to assemble his castles, towering yet delusive, and has contributed to simply amplify the collapse. The castles crumble and a new beginning starts whereby one needs to learn how to live with their eyes open. And yet, the aching lament for the loss of the castles and the pain of their memory show that one cannot live with or without castles in the wind. On the one hand, reality kills hope, which “has fallen”. On the other hand, the memory of the castles conjures up a narrative which in itself assembles reality, and this dialectics seems impossible to escape. In his film Another Woman, Woody Allen wondered whether memory is something you have or something you lose. By keeping the memory of his dead castles alive, Sá de Miranda seems to be claiming that memory is something you have and therefore something which assembles its own reality.
The second reason why the poem is “cruel” is due to the beauty of its writing. Certain things are so beautiful they stab our heart in a manner of speaking. They seem too crudely stunning and are somehow made impossible to bear. To a certain extent science provides an explanation to this when it says that when we are in love or eat lots of chocolate we produce a hormone called oxytocin. This poem causes the reader to produce a lot of oxytocin. If it weren’t for this attempt to provide a greatly scientific explanation, I would say the poem is akin to the supernatural or the divine. This is because the unity of the poem is so irreproachably beautiful that it establishes its own indisputable truth, much in the sense that Shelley, in A Defense of Poetry, stated that “poetry is indeed something divine” and the poet its “nightingale”.
As a reader, and to my ears, it is this nightingale who sings the poem - “oh my castles in the wind/ (…) castles of no substance/ how much have you promised me,/ how much to me have you crumbled!”
* Francisco Sá de Miranda was born in Coimbra in 1481 and died in 1558 in Amares, in Minho, after leading a life devoted to poetry and to several posh activities, namely travelling, hunting and buying country estates. Sá de Miranda spent approximately five years in Italy meeting all sorts of interesting people and writing poetry of such depth that it became a (or perhaps “the”) guiding light for Portuguese literature – let us just say that without Sá de Miranda there wouldn’t have been a Luís Vaz de Camões and it is with difficulty we can conceive of Portuguese literature without the latter. Similarly to his friend Bernardim Ribeiro, Sá de Miranda left the futilities of the King’s court and palace and decided to settle in the country. He lived for so long for the standards of the time that he witnessed the death of many friends, and of his wife and son. He remained a poet and wrote till the end.
Rita Faria is a professor at the Catholic University of Portugal. She doesn’t know how to do anything else apart from reading and writing and wants to do nothing else apart from reading and writing. Besides this, she enjoys horror films, vampires, ghosts and zombies in general and thinks the Portuguese language is the most fun in the whole world.